By-election campaigns turn dirty

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Indy Politics

Labour's attempts to fend off the Liberal Democrats and the prospect of humiliating defeat in two Midlands by-elections have become mired in personal accusations.

A Labour leaflet issued this weekend in the Birmingham constituency of Hodge Hill attacks the Liberal Democrat candidate for her alleged role in helping to get mobile phone masts built.

Headlined "Scandal hits phone mast Lib Dem", it alleges that Nicola Davies is a "mobile phone mast spin doctor with an office in London" whose selection has infuriated local residents.

Ms Davies, who hopes to be Birmingham's first Liberal Democrat MP, describes herself as a "local government affairs manager in the telecoms industry".

Her spokesman said: "She does not work for an operator that advocates mobile phone masts, but she will often do the liaison with the local community when an application for a mast comes in."

Mark Oaten, the Liberal Democrat Home Affairs spokesman, seen as a future party leader, was vigorous in his support for residents who opposed a mast in his Winchester constituency.

Labour activists will see the personal tone of the attack as retaliation for the way Liberal Democrats criticised their candidate in Leicester South, Sir Peter Soulsby, a week earlier. Sir Peter was denounced as "the person most noted for awarding himself fat cat pay rises when he was the top Labour man on Leicester council and for the massive council tax rises he inflicted on local residents".

Both by-elections, scheduled for 15 July, are in what would normally be seen as safe Labour seats, although both will be bitterly fought.

The Liberal Democrats claim their candidate, Parmjit Singh Gill, is the front runner in the Leicester South contest, even though Labour held the seat in 2001 with a 13,243 majority. Jim Marshall, who held the seat for 26 years, died last month.

Ms Davies has a harder fight on her hands than Mr Gill, because the Liberal Democrats took only one council seat in the constituency in this month's elections, while Labour took eight. The sitting Labour MP, Terry Davis, who has quit to take up a job in Europe, has held the seat for 25 years.

The Liberal Democrats would need a 28 per cent swing to take the seat, which they achieved when they seized Brent East from Labour last September.